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Happiness or Purpose Is Not an Absolute Measure of a Good Life

Happiness or Purpose Is Not an Absolute Measure of a Good Life

Is life still worth living if it is unhappy?

According to many surveys, the world’s happiness is showing an alarming trend. Negative feelings, such as worry and sadness, are on the rise. Research shows that the state of happiness in the United States has been decreasing steadily since 2000. Yet, the worrying mental health results reflect the international sentiment. Everywhere people are feeling less satisfied with life. According to a study from Princeton University, people who make at least $75,000 a year are more likely to be happy.

However, the study warns that money doesn’t create happiness but solely gives individuals the possibility to face hardships. Unfortunately, wealth disparities can severely affect one’s ability to experience happiness. This leads to an important question: Is life still worth living if it is unhappy?

Photo by Louis Hansel

We’ve asked psychologists, and their answer has us reconsidering our life perspectives. Psychologists insist that happiness and a good life are two completely different elements. Aristotle described life as being either hedonic — pleasure-centered happiness — or eudaimonic — focused on finding a purpose through the greater good and your role in it. But recent research published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Review argues that life doesn’t need to be either happy or purposeful to be worth living. What is a good life?

Interesting experiences

Experiences come in many forms and shapes. An interesting experience drives personal transformations by encouraging an individual to question their own status quo. Whether the experience shines by its complexity or novelty, it elevates someone’s perspective on their own life. While most people value positive experiences in priority because they are pleasant, psychologists insist that interesting does not systematically mean agreeable. Indeed, when the experience brings a challenge, there could be a ton of value for the individual who goes through it. The experience acts as a form of psychological richness, adding more layers and depth to your understanding of the world and yourself. 

Can a painful experience become part of a good life? Absolutely. Painful events shape us too. As experiences can be neither purposeful nor happy, they do not fit in the usual hedonic/eudaimonic dichotomy. However, they can create new emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, ultimately marking an individual as the sum of their unique experiences. 

Happy can be monotonous

The research paper notes that “happy and meaningful lives can be monotonous.” Is happy boring? Shel Silverstein, in “the Land of Happy”, describes it as a bore. Silverstein explains that nobody is unhappy in Happy — a metaphor for Facebook. Yet, the Land of Happy acts as a protective barrier that deprives individuals of making any transformative experience for fear it might be unpleasant. 

Similarly, a life built solely on seeking happiness or purpose becomes uneventful. It is smooth and repetitive. Every day is the same day, as every day delivers the same amount of happiness. But even a hedonic or eudaimonic existence fades into a nonsensical farce when pleasure or the greater good is the only option. How can pleasure exist when its absence is banned? How can one find purpose when there’s no option to seek a meaningless existence? 

Photo by Oriol Hausmann

Psychological richness vs. happiness vs. purpose

Researchers agree that a life of pleasure (hedonism), of purpose (eudaimonism), and of varied experiences (psychological richness) are not mutually exclusive. Can someone pursue happiness while wanting to find psychological richness in life? The answer is yes. In fact, they note that a healthy value of a good life could be the combination of events, decisions, and experiences that are purposeful, happy, and transformative. According to Lorraine Besser and Shigehiro Oishi, psychological richness seeks perspective-altering experiences. It is a trait that’s typically common among individuals who show curiosity and openness to novelty. However, it’s worth noting that individuals could go through different priorities during their lives or depending on their interests. 

Defining individual value in life

Is a happy life more valuable than a psychologically rich life? Psychologists agree that the choice was never one or the other. On the contrary, psychologists hope they can give people the tools they need to build a good life by providing a new path to define one’s life value. Indeed, bringing a new perspective to the notion of a good life can offer insight into changes you could make. 

External factors, individual preferences, and everyday obstacles can contribute to defining the most promising path toward a good life at any given time. Perhaps when contributing to the greater good isn’t an option, the person can consider psychological richness to build a life worth living.